Booze gave me up for Lent: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

The big bad (in more ways than one) bottle of wine who’ll be taunting me during Lent this year. Photo by the Author.

I’ll lay the cards on the table now, I’m one of those high functioning drinkers; the type Archbishop Fulton Sheen once referred to as a habitual in danger of becoming compulsive. Sometimes I celebrate a good day at work, then mourn the bad day following. I’ll drink on my birthday, yours, your cousin’s. On a feast day. After confirmation. Bar mitzvahs, too. As my piano teacher Wenek Naszkowski says, “When you want to beat the dog, you’ll always find a stick.” My apologies to dog lovers who take offense at that, but his blunt eastern European wisdom always resonates with me. I mean, I have no desire to beat a dog, but if we want to stretch this analogy to its limits, imagine my liver as the dog and Sarah McLachlan singing “In the Arms of an Angel” over my bloodied filtration system. Anyway, my intent is not to make this a discourse on my alcoholism, but I want to be very open with you about my struggle so maybe you won’t feel as embarrassed about whatever metaphorical dog you’re bludgeoning in your life. I’m not a theologian, I’m no Scott Hahn or Tim Gray (God bless them). I am an expert on my sins if nothing else. In relation to one of those sins, I want to bear witness to a miracle I’ve experienced the last few Lenten seasons. But let’s start in the recent past, those days making up the seventh week in ordinary time, Anno Domini 2020.

As the days drew nearer to Ash Wednesday, my coworkers, family, and liquor store owner began heckling me, each in their own style:

“Time’s running out, eh?”

“I’m gonna miss you.”

“A little late coming in today, enjoying your last days of freedom?”

The last statement was made by Wenek who’s punishing my lack of practicing with lessons at 8 am on Saturday (good students get good time slots). But he wasn’t entirely correct. I mean, yes, I was hungover, but I wasn’t enjoying my last days of freedom — I was in a holding cell awaiting bail. My retort was met with the customary eye roll. A few people in my life are still skeptical about what happens to me each time this year. Sobriety. Three Lents running. But I didn’t give up booze, it gave up me. So, much to the surprise of many, I didn’t spend Fat Tuesday guzzling bottles of wine giving myself a send-off, I spent the night rolling in bed with anticipation as if I were leaving on a trip in the morning. Ash Wednesday is embarkation day.

I woke up excited despite the lack of sleep. There I was in the pew for eight A.M. mass with my youngest son snuggled in the crook of my arm and my oldest son at the ambo clearly annunciating the first reading. The morning sun filtered through stained glass and reflected off the gold and pink rotunda over the tabernacle inside Saint Catherine of Siena, the Parish where my boys attend school. William reads the words of the Prophet Joel, “…the Lord was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people.” I know what His compassion feels like, in eight years of being an observant Catholic I’ve begged for the strength to cast off many shackles — and I’ve not been disappointed. This last one, however, holds on and all I can do is manage the pain. Sitting in the pew I recall the previous seasons.

The first year I gave up drinking for Lent people in my circle were taking bets on how long I’d make it (because I didn’t have a rainmaker’s chance in hell of going the distance, apparently). These gamblers knew my track record, though. They played the safe bet. There isn’t a portion of year I don’t attempt to ‘cut-back’ usually for the sake of vanity (better drain that beer belly a bit, boyo). These efforts never amount more than to clearing a trench around a controlled burn. Misery. Even the best prognosticator can’t adjust the odds when it comes to the power of God’s grace, though.

One of the Sisters of the Beatitudes approached the altar and bowed with my son before taking his place at the ambo. She sang the Responsorial Psalm, the verses reminded me of what returned to me during that first Lent when booze gave me up.

“A clean heart create for me, O God,

And a steadfast spirit renews within me.

Cast me not out from your presence,

And your Holy Spirit take not from me.”

— Psalm 51:12–13

I can feel my heart washed clean, spirit soaring, I feel the love of God on me like sunshine breaking through storm clouds. Oh, how wonderful! I squeezed my youngest son, Russell, recalling what joy lay ahead. A young woman, another student from Saint Catherine’s, took the sister’s place and second reading began, Saint Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. This line struck me:

“We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. (2 Cor 6:1)”

I’ve made drinking an art, so to speak. Photo by the Author.

I thought of last year, I broke my fast on Good Friday drinking wine while watching “The Greatest Story Ever Told” with the boys. I hadn’t drank on any Sunday during Lent, so I figured (as drunks are always good at figuring) I could celebrate the resurrection a little early. The morning after, on the way to taking William to practice for serving the Easter Vigil mass, I pulled the car off the road abruptly to head for the bushes. I recalled something about not putting new wine into old wineskins…

The end of Lent the two years prior were similar affairs, parties with family I believe. I’m the “fun drunk”, the “happy dude”, the “Elvis at Karaoke” type. It seemed like people were happy to have that guy back. But that guy wasn’t as happy to be back as he looked. Three years I experienced God’s total grace during Lent, three years I was back in the old routine by the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Late summer found me like a man set adrift, hoping his provisions would last until he reached the shores of the Paschal season again.

I began to worry as we stood to hear the Gospel proclaimed. Had I received God’s grace in vain, three times? Would I be granted another reprieve this year? There will be some difficulties in the days ahead, I was reminded as Father Luke began reading with his microphone cranked up to 11. The sleepless nights. Cold sweats. My tinnitus ringing like I just left a Spinal Tap concert. Irritability. These things I took in stride because I felt a comforting — soothing — from outside myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t experience some suffering during those last three Lenten fasts, but I had the strength to suffer them with grace. Father kept booming out that traditional Ash Wednesday reading, reverberating within me.

Christ taught, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites…(Mt. 6:16).”

What if I look miserable? What if I make my family miserable while my body adjusts? Will there be a point where I’ll just give into drinking so everyone will be happier around me? Father Luke went into his homily, his voice making the holy water in the baptismal font ripple, on the importance of fasting in secret, with joy. So, I decided then and there, I wasn’t giving up alcohol for Lent.

I am giving up fear.

…and a handful of other things I won’t mention in order to follow the teaching of our Blessed Lord more closely. Booze is giving me up for Lent, and I will not fear.

As Saint Paul said in the second reading, “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation!” It’s time. I know it. My mustard seed amount of faith regarding the special graces during an observant Lent has moved mountains off me before.

I received my ashes after Father’s homily, then a short while later I received the Eucharist. My boys headed to school, and I to work, where the customary “what’s that dirt” jibes were shot at me like confetti cannons. They don’t need to see ashes on my forehead to know I’m a drunk. I don’t need ashes on my forehead to realize it. But I wear that admission of sin with my chin up so everyone can see it. I know God loves me no matter what my blood alcohol content is amongst my other inglorious statistics. Maybe one of these days I get around to loving my self a little more, too. Lent is not about guilt. I don’t feel nearly as guilty as I could about helping feed the hard-working employees of Jim Beam’s distillery (drunks are good at justification, haha).

Let me be clear on two facts. Fact One) Drinking alcohol is not a sin. When it threatens to usurp the Lord and your family and your goals as the sovereign devotions of your life, it becomes sinful. Once it takes the throne and you no longer fulfill your duties to others and yourself, it is a sin. And of course, as stated in the Catechism (2290), endangering the lives of others and yourself while intoxicated is a grave sin. Many of us can walk the tightrope while balancing responsibility in one hand and a bottle in the other. It’s a tiring experience, to say the least. I’m looking forward to resting. Those who know what it is to walk that tightrope know there’s no safety net below. Fact Two) There is no shame in falling from that rope, but when you hit the bottom and need rehabilitation, prayer and faith are one part of the recovery process, professional help is the other. Your parish has the resources to get you help if you are ready for it. I know, the invitation has been casually extended to myself once or twice.

Lent is not about guilt. I want to be sober during Lent so I can fully experience every aspect of this season as we prepare for the celebration of our risen Lord. Lent is about removing distraction so you can be present in that glorious moment. I know I am afforded extra strength during the holy season. But, maybe, just maybe, I’ll stay sober this time. In that hope, I ask for you, Saint Maximillian Kolbe, and our most Blessed Mother to pray for me to our Lord, Jesus Christ.

May you have a blessed Lent!